Tag Archives: Higher Education

Should we stop using the term “PhD students”?

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Back in the early 1990s when I was doing my PhD there was one main way in which to achieve a doctorate in the UK.  That was to carry out original research as a “PhD student” for three or four years, write it up as a thesis, and then have an oral examination (viva).  Even then the idea of being a “PhD student” was problematical because I was funded as a Postgraduate Teaching Assistant and to a large extent treated as a member of staff, with office space, a contributory pension scheme, etc.  Was I a “student” or a member of staff or something in between?

Nowadays the ways in which one can obtain a Level 8 qualification have increased greatly.  At the University of Northampton one can register for a traditional PhD, carry out a Practice-based PhD in the Arts (involving a body of creative work and a smaller thesis), or submit an existing set of publications for a PhD by Means of Published Works (“PhD by Publication”).  There are also a couple of Professional Doctorates (“Prof Docs”): Doctor of Professional Practice in Health and Social Care (D Prof Prac) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA).  Other subject areas are looking at developing these types of degrees, for example in Education.

Some of the “PhD students” who are registered on these degrees fit the mould of the relatively young academic, fresh from a first degree or a Master’s programme.  But many are older, especially on the Prof Docs (which attracts senior staff from business or the public sector), or might be members of staff at the university who teach and do research in areas where PhDs were not traditionally awarded.  And then there are those who are studying for an MPhil, also a Level 8 research degree.

The University of Northampton is not alone in this regard and over the past 20 years the range of doctorates and other research degrees has broadened enormously.  Those studying for a research degree even within the same Faculty may hardly be aware of one another, and some may be long-standing members of staff rather than “students” per se.  It’s important, therefore, to note that there is no single postgraduate community within an institution.  Rather we must recognise that there are communities of postgraduate researchers.

Not only that, but even those on a “traditional” PhD, who are not members of staff,  interact with the university in ways such as involvement in teaching, staff-style email addresses and security cards, etc., that reflects a status that is beyond “student”.  Members of academic staff who are registered for PhDs might certainly resent the idea of being called a “student”.

So for all of these reasons I’m going to try and stop referring to “PhD students” and instead use the term “Postgraduate Researchers” (PGRs).  Because that’s what they are.

As always, I’m happy to receive your comments and views on this.

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How can academics help students with anxiety issues?

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This is a guest post from Karin Blak, a therapist with over 15 years of training and experience in helping people overcome issues such as anxiety, including running training workshops for young people and those with pastoral care responsibilities such as teachers.  Regular readers of the blog will also know that Karin is my wife, and I may be biased, but I think she’s written a really useful and informative piece on an issue that’s concerning many academics and their universities at the moment.  If you want to get in touch with Karin to ask about training workshops that she offers, or to follow up on any of this, click on that link to her web site or drop me a line.


 

Listening to and reading about the issues students in higher education have, anxiety seems to be on the rise.  I do wonder whether it is more likely that, with developments in psychology and therapy, we are better able to accept that there is such a condition as “anxiety” and are aware of how to spot it, rather than blaming shyness or laziness.  But whatever the source of this rise, we need to consider how academics can help students with anxiety.

Anxiety is not a disability, but it is a dis-abler.  It is a fear based condition that increases if it is treated with too much empathy.  For example, if we allow students to not participate in group activities because of anxiety, we are being too empathic and instead of helping the student, as was our intention, we empower the condition.  So if too much empathy is a bad thing, what can we do to help?  To answer this question we need to understand what anxiety actually is.

Anxiety stems from our prehistoric ancestors who had an innate strategy to detect and survive threats to their lives.  With the help of adrenaline certain abilities would be strengthened, such as strength, speed or numbness.  Their bodies would shut down all but the most important functions they needed for these actions.  This is also known as fight, flight freeze, or fall (pretend to be dead).  Once the danger was over, the body would return to normal.

We still innately possess this ability to detect danger and our bodies tend to react in the same way.  This is still important for our survival, though at times it can stop us from achieving our potential.  If this ability is activated in situations that do not threaten our lives, but where we feel uncomfortable or lack confidence, we will feel like running away, lose our words, our pulse will increase, we might begin to sweat, and ultimately we will enter into a state of panic.

Social encounters, presenting information to groups, taking part in discussions and debates all activate anxiety for someone who has been fine tuned to this strategy.  As part of developing knowledge, experience and maturity students in higher education are encouraged to partake in all of these experiences.

Almost like being possessed, extreme anxiety will effectively shut down any capabilities a student has and replace them with noise and undermining messages.  At the same time if the student is allowed not to participate, the anxiety is likely to get worse and anxiety will be controlling the student.  It is a cycle that the student will probably know really well but perhaps not be completely conscious of.

The tricky thing is that anxious students believe that anxiety is an integral part of who they are.  They have lived with it for most of their lives and many have not had help.  To feel anxiety so intensely will stop the most capable student from succeeding and academic staff will play a role in that failure if anxiety is treated like a disability.

For a student with anxiety, the most supportive action by lecturers would be to enable participation in classes.

Some suggestions for action:

  1. Referring the student to the university’s counselling services is a must. Counsellors have special training in working with anxiety and should be able to provide coping strategies while the underlying reasons are worked with.
  2. Talk with the student one-to-one and decide what they are going to say or do in an upcoming session.  Make it a short spoken sentence or piece of work initially, even if it is only to agree with something that is said in a seminar for instance, or give them a question to ask after a lecture. Let them know that you are there to support them through this.  Rehearsing the words with them will prepare the brain for participation, and if coached to participate it will be the first step in externalising anxiety rather than letting it rule the present and future life of the student.
  3. After the session, follow this up one-to-one with affirmation so the student can see that they are capable, that they did the right thing, and that they coped.
  4. Refer the student to the following two websites:

MIND’s website has reliable information to aid understanding of anxiety and how to help, as well as self-help. While it is important for academic staff to understand a condition that is affecting a growing number of today’s students, it is equally important for the students living with anxiety to be made aware of this free, valuable source of help:

https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/self-care-for-anxiety/#.W9LVNWj0nic

Get-Self-Help is an approved Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) website which is another resource for people living with anxiety and it’s also free:

https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/

It is worth academics  familiarising themselves with the information on here too so that they have a good understanding of the situation and can be of optimum help to students who live with anxiety.

The above advice will not apply to all students with anxiety.  For example, if anxiety is secondary to a primary condition such as bipolar or a personality disorder, then different coping strategies need to be considered and working closely with student support services would be a recommendation.  Likewise, depression is often caused by anxiety as anxiety has a tendency to isolate an individual and destroy self-esteem.  Seeking professional help is again recommended.

We all feel anxious sometimes.  I used to accept invites to social events and as time drew closer I would end up cancelling.  It hasn’t completely gone away, but I know what anxiety is up to and can resist the temptation to dive into the overwhelming feelings it’s presenting me with.

I know of academics with vast experience of presenting their topic to large groups of students and peers, who still feel like running away before they go on stage.  People who have studied their subject in minute detail and still struggle to find the words for what they want to say..…sometimes, only sometimes, not all the time, because they too have stopped listening to the voice of anxiety.

To get to the point of being able to manage anxiety, help is needed.  Training, therapy, self-help, CBT, whatever suits the individual, is a great way of getting to know and control this monster, but most of all it takes support from people around them, including academics.

Ultimately facing the fear and doing it anyway is the only cure, and Susan Jeffers’ book of the same name is still a top seller when it comes to managing an anxious life.  University academics are in the perfect position to help change a student’s life, not just by imparting your knowledge and skills, but in the support you can provide to your anxious students.

 

 

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Advice to students: choose your email address carefully (and think about changing it)

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Some years ago a first year undergraduate emailed me from his personal email address which began “iwillrapeyou@xxxxx”.  I’m sure the student and his mates thought this was hilarious when he set up his first email account as a young teenager.  I politely suggested to him that maybe now, as a grown-up interacting with other grown-ups who were supporting his education, it might be time to change it.  “Do you really intend to submit applications for jobs using that address?” I asked.

To his credit he agreed and did change it.  That’s the only time I’ve said to a student that they probably ought to change their personal email address, but lately I’ve come to the conclusion that students need to consider what their email addresses are saying about them to the wider world.  However it’s not a topic I see discussed very often

Looking at the addresses of some recent students I see things such as “buttercup123@xxxx”, “reds360@xxxx”, “halilulyah247@xxxx”, “canadiankckrz@xxxx”, “MAXSAMJAM@xxxx”, “beaniethemanmusic96@xxxx”, “iamwoody22@xxxx”, “SAVETHEPANDAS@xxxx”.  Now none of these addresses are as obnoxious or inflammatory as the first example I gave, but all of them say something about the person behind the email address, whether they are aware of it or not.  These addresses tell the wider world that the person who sent an email is a football fan, or an environmentalist, or a music fan, or has a wacky nickname, etc.  And it’s fine to be all of those things.  But what they lack is any kind of professionalism, they all sound like they are emails from teenagers, not grown ups.

So my advice to all students (undergraduate and postgraduate) would be: think carefully about your email address and what it is saying about you, and consider whether that’s the perception you wish to give to prospective employers.

And while you’re at it you might also want to reconsider including your birth year in the address: that’s an important piece of personal information that could be of use to unscrupulous cyber criminals.

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Metaphors in oak: my Images of Research entry for 2018

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The Annual University of Northampton “Images of Research” competition has been running for 5 years and this year’s event has seen a bumper entry of 38 images with accompanying text in fewer than 150 words (including one from our Vice Chancellor).

I think that I’ve entered an image every year – this is from 2016 – and you can see my entry from this year above.  It’s called “Metaphors in oak” and here’s my 150 words – perhaps a little fanciful in retrospect, but it’s what the photo said to me at the time:

“This photograph was taken on a recent field trip to Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. I was drawn to the colours and textures of this fallen oak branch as a piece of natural art, but also to its ecological significance. The bark has been attacked by insects then decomposed by fungi and bacteria, leaving behind the wooden core of the branch, which has subsequently been colonised by lichens and mosses. Decay, recycling, colonisation, biodiversity: fundamental ecological patterns and processes. But, with a little imagination, there are also metaphors for research to be seen in this picture. The growth patterns of the wood seem to flow, and in it we can envision a journey of both smooth waters and turbulent times. The diversity of organisms captured in the image reminds us of the varied experiences we can expect during research, not all positive, but all adding to the colour and texture of our lives. What does this image say, and what metaphors does it reveal, to you?”

 

Here’s a link to the exhibition catalogue and to the online voting system – well worth browsing through to see the range and diversity of research being carried out at our university.

 

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Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (2) – an assessed plant taxonomy questionnaire

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In my post last week I described “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy“, a first year undergraduate exercise aimed at giving students experience and confidence using scientific names for species, as well as providing an understanding of taxonomic hierarchies and food diversity.  The follow-up to this is an assessed questionnaire that focuses more deeply on plant taxonomy, phylogenetics, and human uses.  Here’s the text of the exercise [with a few annotations in square brackets for clarity]:

 

ENV1012 Biodiversity: an Introduction

Assessed Questionnaire

This exercise is assessed and is worth 25% of your final grade for this module.

The questionnaire is time constrained; you have two hours in which to complete it. Once completed, upload it to NILE using the Submit Your Work folder [NILE is our Blackboard e-learning platform]. Any questions, please ask or email me if I’m not in the room [email provided – the class is so large that I had to split it across two computer suites].

The Task

At the beginning of this session you will be given the name of a plant family.  Your job over the next two hours is to research that family and answer the questions below. Each of you will be researching a different plant family so by all means discuss what you are doing and collaborate, but everyone’s final answers will be different.

For this exercise focus on the following websites:

The Tree of Life Project: http://www.tolweb.org/tree/

Wikispecies: https://species.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page

Note that we don’t usually recommend Wikipedia as a source of information, but much of the taxonomic material on this site is quite good because it is produced and maintained by experts.

 

The Questions

Be accurate in your answers: you will lose marks for misspelled scientific names, genus and species names not italicised, appropriate use of capital initials, etc.

Do not copy and paste from websites – this will be spotted with the software that we use and your answers will be rejected.

 

  1. What is the scientific name of the plant family you are researching?
  1. Which botanist named the family? Hint – you will find an abbreviation of the name on the Wikipedia page.
  1. Does this family have a common name? If so, what is it? If not, say so.
  1. What is the distribution of the family, e.g. tropical or temperate, New World or Old World, global?
  1. Fill in this blanks on this taxonomic hierarchy:

Kingdom:  Plantae

Order:

Family:

Subfamilies (if present):

Tribes (if present):

 

  1. What is the estimated number of genera in the family?
  1. Provide the names of up to three of those genera:

a.

b.

c.

  1. What is the estimated number of species in the family?
  1. What mode(s) of pollination do species in this family possess (e.g. wind, animal, water)?
  1. Provide a short description of the human uses of this family (no more than 50 words):

 

Using the Tree of Life site, find and list:

  1. The sister family or families to your family (hint: it’s the family or families closest on the evolutionary tree).
  1. The first “containing group” for your family (may be an unranked, informal taxonomic level).
  1. The next “containing group”.
  1. Keep going until you get to the final “containing group” – where do you end up? [a slightly trick question – everyone ends up at the same place]
  1. State one surprising or unexpected thing that you have learned from doing this exercise (no more than 25 words).

 

My students have now completed this exercise and I was very pleased with the outcome: the average grade was around A-/B+ and no one failed (yet, there are still come non-submissions…).  The answers to question 15 were particularly interesting and included things like: “I had no idea that potatoes and chillies were closely related”, “amazed at the diversity of plants”, “didn’t realise that plants were so fascinating”.

The fact that students were able to do this in small groups, and discuss their findings, yet still produce largely unique answers, added a lot to the enjoyment of this exercise I think.  Certainly there was a buzz in the room while they were researching their answers.  It will be interesting to see what the module feedback is like at the end of term.

The grading criteria for this assessed questionnaire were fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. All questions answered.
  2. Answers are grammatically correct, with appropriate use of scientific conventions, e.g. underlined genus and species names, use of capitals, etc.
  3. Information presented is accurate

 

As always, feel free to comment, make suggestions, and point out errors and improvements.

 

 

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Engaging students with the fundamentals of biodiversity (1) – “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy”

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This term we have started refreshing and reformatting our first year undergraduate modules, partly in preparation for the move to our new Waterside Campus, but also because they were beginning to feel a bit tired and jaded.  We have begun with ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction, a 20 CATS module which mainly services our BSc Environmental Science and BSc Biology programmes.

One of the changes has been to go from a “long-thin” delivery of 2 class hours per week over two terms, to a “short-fat” delivery of 4 hours per week in one term.  The advantages of this, we think, are two-fold: (1) it provides students with a richer, more immersive experience because they are not mind-flitting between different topics; (2) it frees up longer blocks of time for academic staff to focus on programme development, research activities, etc.

For now we have opted to deliver the 4 hours in a single session.  That’s quite a long time for the students (and staff) to be taught (teaching) but it’s punctuated by short breaks and includes a lot of practical work in the field, lab, and computer suite.

One of the aims of ENV1012  Biodiversity: an Introduction is to engage the students with the use of taxonomic names of species and higher groups, familiarise them with the principles of biological classification, why this is important (and why it underpins the rest of biology and much of the environmental sciences), and so forth.  Building confidence in how scientific names are used, and the diversity of species that all of us encounter on a day-to-day basis, are important aspects of this, and I developed a couple of new exercises that we are trialling this term which are focused on these areas.

The first one is called “The Taxonomy of Gastronomy” and was partly inspired by a conversation I had with Steve Heard when he posted about The Plant Gastrodiversity Game.  It works like this. I begin with an interactive lecture that sets out the basic ideas behind taxonomic classification and its importance.  After a short break the students then begin the hands-on part of the exercise.  Working in groups of three they use a work sheet that lists 10 culinary dishes, including:  fried cod, chips, and mushy peas; spotted dick; spaghetti bolognese; Thai green curry with tofu & okra; chocolate brownies, etc. (this can easily be varied and adapted according to needs).

The students’ first task is to find a recipe online for each dish.  For each biological ingredient in that dish, they list its common name and find its taxonomic family, genus, and species (italicising the latter two, as per taxonomic conventions).  I emphasise that it is important to be accurate with names as they will be doing something similar in a later assessed exercise.

This takes a couple of hours and then they feedback their results in a debriefing session, including finding out who had the longest list of species in a meal – the winner was 17 species in a moussaka recipe, with a Jamie Oliver fish and chips recipe coming a credible second with 12!  We also discuss particularly common taxa that turn up frequently, for example plant families such as Solanaceae – the relatedness of tomatoes, chillies, peppers, potatoes, and aubergine, the students found very intriguing.

By the end of this exercise the students will have gained familiarity with researching, understanding, handling, and writing scientific names of species and higher taxonomic groups.  In addition they will have a better understanding of the taxonomic diversity of organisms that we consume, and their relatedness.  It may also have encouraged them to try out some new recipes!

If anyone wishes to comment or add suggestions for improvements, please do.  If you’d like to try this yourself with your own students feel free to adapt it to your own needs, though an acknowledgement somewhere would be polite.

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The Living Planet Report 2016 – taking stock with a student seminar

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This morning I started the first in a series of weekly two-hour seminar sessions with my final year undergraduate students on their Biodiversity and Conservation module.  By this stage in their BSc programme the students are being weaned off lectures and being encouraged to take a more critical perspective on the published scientific literature.  Each week we deal with a specific issue relating to biodiversity such as: measuring biodiversity; current trends; spatial patterns; biodiversity and  ecosystem services; and how much is there still to discover about biodiversity?

This morning we focused on the Living Planet Report 2016, the latest installment of an annual assessment of the rate and extent to which we are losing animals across the globe.  The report, which came out last month, generated a lot of media attention with headlines such as “World wildlife falls by 58% in 40 years” and “World on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020“.

As preparation for the seminar I asked the students to read the first chapter of the report and then during the session I divided them into groups of three in order to take stock* of the report and answer a series of questions such as:

What do you understand by the “Anthropocene”?

What do you understand by the “Living Planet Index” (LPI)?

How do the LPIs vary across the planet and across taxonomic groups?

What is the evidence base for these trends?

Which LPIs show the greatest declines and which LPIs show the least declines? Can you account for these patterns?

Which LPI trend do you consider to be the most worrying, and why?

By way of a counter-point to the media hype, and to consider one potential area of criticism of the report, I also ask the students to look at critiques written by Simon Leather (You don’t need charismatic megafauna to go on an exciting safari) and Ryan Clarke (What about the little things?).  In both of these posts the bloggers take the report to task by pointing out that it ignores the vast majority of animal life, i.e. invertebrates such as insects, crustaceans, and so forth.

Simon and Ryan have a valid point, of course, but the fact of the matter is that we simply don’t have the same quality of long-term population data for invertebrates as we do for  birds, mammals, fish, reptiles and amphibians.  The exception to that is the butterflies which the Living Planet Report does discuss, devoting a whole page to grassland butterflies.  It also states (p20) that “Methods to incorporate invertebrates and plants are now in development”.

Although the hype around the report is a bit over the top, nonetheless this focus on the best possible data sets does emphasise the fact that the world’s biodiversity is declining in species richness and abundance.  The final question I ask the students is whether, in their opinion, we on the verge of a “Sixth Mass Extinction” (as the report suggests).  A show of hands at the end showed that about half think “yes”, a quarter think “no”; and a quarter (myself included) said “we don’t know”.  It was a nice demonstration of the complexities around coming to any kind of consensus when it comes to reports such as this.

All-in-all it was a great session, the students really engaged with it and raised some very interesting points.  I’m looking forward to the rest of these seminars, they promise to be very stimulating.

 

 

*Before anyone comments, yes, I know that the photo shows a pillory not a set of stocks.  But we don’t have a set of stocks at the university, only a pillory.  Exactly why we have a pillory on campus is another matter…..

 

 

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